A Chapel Talk
by Todd Bland, Milton Academy head of school
March 27, 2018
“Let the words of mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, o Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”
I’ve always wanted to say that. So, it’s from Psalm 19, and was said many times by my stepfather, from many pulpits. And it’s my honor to begin this morning with that, and with all of you.
I speak to you today simply as a person, an uncle, a father, a husband, a teacher, and hopefully a friend to all of you from this day forward. I think often about moments in time where I have an opportunity to speak in front of a group, and I’ve never been more honored to be asked to speak to any group than to speak in front of all of you in this space.
I have, since I was a young boy, admired Groton School; and for many reasons, a few of which you’ll hear about this morning, your institution has given me great gifts. This morning, I hear the words of Maya Angelou when she said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
There’s a lot on your mind, I’m sure. First day back, getting ready for the last push to the end of the year. Some of you have traveled great distances, undoubtedly a few jet-lagged. But I thank you for your attention this morning.
So let’s begin with feeling. If you could join with me, just for a moment, and bring into your heart, bring into your mind, a person from your life—a person who, whenever you see them, or they see you, you know that they love you. When you look into their eyes, you know that they see in you your very best. That may be someone in this community or someone from someplace else. But just take a moment and bring that person into your heart and your mind.
The first person that comes to mind for me is my grandfather. There may be a few of you in this room who brought to your minds, to your hearts, a grandparent. Jonathan Brewster Bingham—he was my hero from my first memories. I’ll speak a little bit about him in a moment. I also think about a bumper sticker that I’ve seen recently, because, the other “B” that comes to my mind is actually my dog. This bumper sticker said: “Help me to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” And those of you who have pets that love us understand that. I have rough days, but every day I come and I see my dog Riley, and he thinks I am the king. It’s about the biscuits, probably, but I think he actually looks into my soul and sees goodness in me. But there are people who do this for us every day.
I’m tempted to speak to you about my grandfather, but I’m not going to. I’m going to speak briefly about my Uncle Harry. Harry was an unusual character. He looked a bit like Einstein, had wire-rimmed glasses, was an inventor, was unusual, was odd, quirky. I always remember that, when he came to see us in the summer, even if it were a hundred degrees, he wore a suit. And when he would arrive to our family, I remember, unfortunately, not being my best self. I, with my cousins, would make fun of him. There were many accomplished people in our family, but I had never known him to have a job. I never knew exactly what he did. I had heard once that he worked in the Foreign Service. I didn’t really know what that was when I was growing up. I wish I’d had more of a relationship with him. He died in 1988, my sophomore year in college.
In 1992, we learned more about Uncle Harry, because of some letters that were found behind a chimney in an old house by his wife and children, my uncles and cousins. This is what we learned: that he was posted in the U.S. consulate in Marseille, France, in 1939. In 1940, the Nazis invaded and occupied France. In 1941, he was abruptly terminated from his post and sent to Portugal and then Argentina. And then in 1945, after being passed over and disgraced, he resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service. And I’m not sure he ever worked again. He died of natural causes in 1988.
What we now know about him is that after the Nazis occupied France, the United States had not yet entered World War II. Many people believed that the position of the United States was that we should remain neutral. And, therefore, in his position, he was not allowed to, or supposed to, grant papers to refugees. In fact, those people in France who were desperate to escape Nazi oppression had a very difficult time leaving. But what we now know because of these letters that we found in 1992 is that he disobeyed orders—and ultimately had granted papers and visas for 2,500 Jewish refugees. He did what he knew in his heart was right.
In 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented my Uncle Harry’s family with the U.S. Constructive Dissent Award, presented at the U.S. Foreign Service award ceremony. In 2006, the Episcopal Church added him to the list of American saints. In 2011, the Simon Wiesenthal Center presented him with the Medal of Valor, along with Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II.
How many people in our lives have we looked at and not seen the very best? How many people have we judged unduly because of what we actually don’t know about them? One thing I know about the world is that I know that we need so many more people to see an American saint in someone that they’ve never met before—to expect the very best of someone even though you don’t know them.
Uncle Harry, Hiram Bingham, was Groton Form of 1921. His younger brother, Jonathan Brewster Bingham, my hero, was Groton Form of 1932. Paul Malone, God willing, is Form of 2018. Not just to embarrass him, I’m going to talk about him for a moment. Actually, maybe this is to embarrass him. But ever since he was born, Paulie, as I refer to him, has looked at me as though I were a hero. He has always humbled me by that gesture. His parents have always done that for me as well. And his father did something a little while ago that seems to be a lost art. He actually wrote to me and told me what he thought of me. I know where Paulie gets it from. But I also know he gets it from here. There is something in this place that, for generations, has cultivated an ability in young people and older people to think the very best of others and therefore to make others heroes.
As the late, great Jim Valvano said, the world is filled with ordinary people. But ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. All of you, each of you, may in your own way do extraordinary things. I hope, in my own way, to live up to just the sight and/or the hope that you have in me, Paulie. I hope that each of you makes decisions in your lives to do things because you know in your heart they are right—even if lots of people are telling you that they are wrong. But above all else, what I hope for each of you is that you remember that you have the power, just by the way in which you look into someone’s eyes, to make them a hero. To make your siblings, your classmates, your teachers, your students, your nephews, your nieces—to make them heroes by demonstrating your faith and love in them.
I am so blessed to be here with you this morning. I am so blessed to have been given the faith of many Groton alumni, including my family—hopes and expectations that, in fact, I will do something great one day. And I hope I will live up to that. I know you will.